Thursday 7 February 2013

What Poets Teach - Q&A With Mark Grist

Mark Grist and Mixy of Dead Poets
Q1. Mr.Grist! First off congratulations to you and Mixy on all your success. How’s it all going?
Hey, Ray. It's going pretty well, I think. We had a rough first year when we went full time, but things are starting to pick up steam. At the moment we seem to be spending a lot of time in meetings with TV and Film companies – we’re currently finalizing the development of a feature film with Film 4. It’s based on my journey from English teacher to rap battler. It’s taken ages to sort out the rights, and it’ll take a year and a half to get the script together, but it should be a fun project. Otherwise, we’re doing a lot of work in schools and we've been commissioned to create a new Dead Poets Live Lit show - hopefully it'll be all done and ready for Edinburgh in 2014.
Q2. There are a few heads from the poetry scene battling on Don’t Flop, namely Chill Pill’s Adam Kammerling and Simon Mole. As you’ve become popular battling emcees what can a poet teach the average battle rapper?

Probably as much as a battle rapper can teach us, really. I think that, in general, a poet’s focus on the content of the lines is tighter - some battlers tend to hang their content on the end of their lines, whereas poets flesh their writing out a little more. Poets also are used to thinking up alternative angles, which can help them frame their rounds more effectively. That being said, I’ve learnt so much about delivery and showmanship from rap battlers and their use of multi-syllabic rhyme really interests me. When the project comes to an end (in the next year, most likely) I’m pretty sure that I’ll owe a lot to the battling community.
Q3. Some people say the role of the poet is to uplift, where as the role of the battle rapper is to put down, what would you say to this?

I'd say that those people probably don't know either art form particularly well. On the surface that could be seen to be the case. Rap battles are transparent in their competitive nature and put-downs are inherent to the sport (although that’s not the only thing going on in a performance). Poetry appears to lack this sense of competition (at least on the surface) and so the material has more range to it. Whilst I agree that poetry can certainly ‘lift you up’ the problem with this statement would be that you don’t cease being a poet once your performance is over.

My real issue with poetry in the UK is the negativity and back biting that has dominated ‘the scene’ for as long as I’ve been a part of it. In the last year and a half we’ve had The Oxford Professor of Poetry calling Carol Anne Duffy ‘The Mills and Boon of poetry’ a London poet plagiarizing Helen Mort’s work (along with the work of others) to win a National competition, Senior members of The Poetry Society trying to oust the magazine’s editor, involving (in her words) ‘bullying’ and ‘death threats’, and an article in a National paper claiming that ‘Poetry Slams do nothing to keep the art form alive’ from a guy who makes a living from selling slam poetry workshops to schools. Added to that, we also get frenzied responses to these actions that take a bad situation and often make it even worse. If poets just got on and wrote poetry it might not be so bad. Don’t get me wrong; rap battlers can be shitty too. But there’s no great moral distinction in my mind.
Q4. You did a tour recently with Mixy where you agreed to perform anywhere in the country, from living rooms to local pubs. What was the most bizarre gig on the tour?

There were a few - Mixy performed in a taxi cab for some middle-aged women in exchange for his cab fare was pretty funny. We also performed in a couple of sitting rooms in exchange for cups of tea. The weirdest gig was three nights in to the tour at a heavy metal night in Andover. They cancelled the normal band and we went on to a pretty rowdy crowd, announcing that we were going to give them an hour of poetry instead of the thrash metal they normally had.

We got ripped so badly by hecklers for the first ten to fifteen minutes, but we just shot back as best we could, got a few laughs and by the end it was probably the best gig we'd ever had. The vast majority of the audience had never experienced poetry before and they just seemed really grateful, as though they’d never expected to be allowed to enjoy it.
Q5. I’ve found some Hip-Hop crowds tend to disapprove any words that are said on stage that don’t flow, you’re a poet but you rhyme and have flow, what exactly is the difference between a Spoken Word poet and a rapper?

I think most of the rappers I know would contest that my flow is pretty weak. The delivery of your material is so, so important - something I learnt in a recent battle against Deffinition where my delivery was all over the place. I could offer an answer on this, but I think I’d just be paraphrasing George the Poet’s response to a similar question on your blog. He’s got it spot on, I think.
Q6. You’re still teaching right? How have your students responded to seeing their teacher in rap battles?

I don't teach any more, although I tend to do 2/3 school gigs a week. Mixy and I both quit our jobs nearly three years ago to continue the Dead Poets experiment, but we like to work with teenagers - as we felt that, as kids, nobody from outside our classrooms told us that our interest in creating rhymes was a worthwhile pursuit.
Q7. What can the average teacher learn from the poet in education?

Loads, I think. But it works both ways. Just as with Spoken Word artists and rappers. Education is a two way street. It's a communication – one of the reasons I wanted to try battling was to enable a discussion to take place between teachers and students about both rap battling and lyricism in general. Dead Poets is all about trying to find ways to bridge that gap in communication.
Q8. Man, need to get you in for a show at Chill Pill, would be great to share a stage again… You going to come down if you’re not too busy?

I'd love to come down. You guys are doing some great stuff! I'd also like to see Simon Mole battling again - his performance at Latitude was one of my favourites of the year.

See Mark in his latest Don't Flop battle below...

Follow Mark on Twitter - @MontyGristo

watch out for the next Chill Pill at The Roundhouse on 13th February.

Chill Pill on 28th February at The Albany featuring David J, Kristiana Rae Colóne, Ross Sutherland

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